CHICAGO - The Islanders needed to be aggressive, physical and active against the Blackhawks and their array of talented players Friday night.
Instead, the Isles were passive, letting Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and company set the pace. You can't do that against any team, let alone the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Islanders' 3-2 loss wasn't a debacle by any means, and the Isles threw a couple of game-tying tries on net in the closing seconds to no avail. But there were enough soft moments, especially in the first two periods, to leave them with their first regulation loss of the season.
"Any time they had possession, we seemed to back off too much," Andrew MacDonald said. "When you've got guys with that type of skill and give them that much time, they're going to make plays."
Michal Handzus scored the deciding goal at 6:45 of the second, banging a rebound past Kevin Poulin with rookie defenseman Matt Donovan out of position after a failed rush. Poulin had 25 saves, including two terrific third-period stops, one on Hossa and one on Patrick Sharp, to keep the Isles within a goal.
But the Isles were able to generate a real head of steam only with a two-goal burst in the final minute of the first period. Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo scored 49 seconds apart to erase a 2-0 deficit, with setups from Michael Grabner and John Tavares. Outside of that, the Isles did not sustain enough of an attack, finishing with 19 shots on veteran Blackhawks backup Nikolai Khabibulin.
"We had some opportunities, but at times we weren't hard enough on them," said Tavares, who had four of the Isles' 19 shots. "We got a little sloppy, especially the second half of the game."
Cal Clutterbuck made his Isles debut, though he played a team-low 8:35 and said he felt a little winded near the end of the first period. Donovan had his first real struggle, unable to contend with Andrew Shaw in front of Poulin on Joakim Nordstrom's game-opening goal.
"We mismanaged the puck," Isles coach Jack Capuano said, hinting that he could make some lineup changes for Saturday night's game in Nashville. "We didn't win many wall battles, and when we did, we threw the puck in the middle. There were some passengers tonight."
The Islanders were able to cover up some errors in their first three games, getting five of a possible six points. Against the heavy forwards from Chicago, puck possession and crisp play were necessary. What the Islanders got was a lesson in how to be a winning team, one they'd rather not have had to learn.
"We have to be a little hungrier," Tavares said. "That's a good team and you have to respect your opponent, but you still have to play harder."
Notes & quotes: Despite playing well the first three games, Brock Nelson was a healthy scratch to make room for Clutterbuck. "Every game is a small test, and you have to make sure you're battling every shift," Nelson said . . . Evgeni Nabokov will start Saturday night in Nashville . . . When he caught a puck to the mouth in the first, Tavares lost the three teeth he had put in to replace three he lost during a workout in September . . . Matt Moulson made it to Chicago in time to play after staying in New York for the birth of his son.
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